My mother broke the St. Francis statue late in the afternoon on a warm September day. We were at my parents’ country home in Pennsylvania, which we call “the Farm,” even though it hasn’t been a working farm in decades. Once upon a time, dairy cows grazed in the fields and got milked in the barn. But now, this century-old farmhouse and its twenty-acre property serve only as my family’s vacation home, a rural respite from the hustle and bustle of our everyday lives in the suburbs of New York City.
When the incident happened, I was supervising my three young children as they took turns learning how to use a bow and arrow.
“Stand with your feet wide apart,” I told my oldest son, eight-year-old Michael, “and pull the string all the way back to your ear.” Suddenly, from across the yard, I heard my mother yelp like a dog whose tail had been stepped on. I ran from our makeshift archery range by the barn to where she was kneeling atop the spring cellar. A two-foot-tall gray cement statue of St. Francis lay cracked in pieces on a flat slate rock.
For as long as I could remember, this statue of the patron saint of animals was a fixture here at the Farm. Draped in a robe and rosary beads, this humble monk had one hand on his breast and the other holding a cross. A pigeon stood at his feet. From the window at the Farm’s kitchen sink, one could see St. Francis on his perch above the pond with the red barn in the background.
“I was cleaning up the dead leaves when I bumped him, and he broke,” my mom said, sitting back on the heels of her Wellies, her dirty garden gloves resting on her corduroy pants. I smiled at her use of “him” instead of “it,” and I was about to shrug off the accident with an “oh well,” but then my mother’s face sagged, and her bottom lip quivered.
St. Francis, in case you’re not familiar, is one of the most venerated religious figures in Roman Catholic history. Before turning to God, Francis was a selfish, spoiled party guy, living off his father’s wealth. But, a real charmer, everyone loved him. Eventually, after a long conversion, he was inspired to lead a life of poverty and preaching. His love of nature went beyond admiring its beauty. Francis believed animals were his brothers, a sparrow as important as the pope. Hence, he is the patron saint of animals, and many people, even non-Catholics, place his likeness in their gardens.
I was surprised by my mother’s reaction to the broken statue. Our family motto is “Don’t sweat the small stuff” because we’ve been through many difficult and tragic losses. Wasn’t this just a run-of-the-mill garden decoration? But then a vague recollection fluttered in my mind, like a monarch flitting about a field of milkweed. This statue had some relation to my deceased older brother, William, although I couldn’t recall what the connection was.
William is why my parents’ vacation home is in the Endless Mountains of Pennsylvania. When he was a teenager, after stints at a boarding school and then a rehab failed to tame him, my parents sent William to the Family Foundation, a “therapeutic school” close to the Pennsylvania border in Sullivan County, New York.
“He needs a strict daily schedule,” the counselors advised my parents. Although based on the twelve steps like other rehabs, the premise of The Family was different. Patients spent less time in therapy and more time working the foundation’s farm—milking cows, planting vegetables, and making bread.
Every month or so, my father would insist we visit William. At ages twelve and thirteen, I’d go reluctantly, sulking with my sisters in the backseat of my mom’s station wagon for the two-and-a-half-hour drive north of our New Jersey home. When we arrived, William would give us a tour, proudly showing us the chores for which he was responsible. Seeing my brother thriving on this muddy farm with its trailers and haphazard construction pained me. I wondered why he couldn’t be happy with us, his actual family, at home.
As children, William would take me fishing for sunnies at the pond near our house. He taught me how to tie on a hook and to hold the fish so its spikes didn’t cut my hand. I was the baby of the family, and he was the only boy, and we’d pair off against my older sisters. I’d take my brother’s side when the fights started with my parents. Once, he was punished for stealing money, and I slipped twenty dollars under his bedroom door with a note saying he could borrow my money anytime.
On those visits to The Family, my parents would offer to take William on a drive through the country. “Maybe you’d enjoy getting off the property for a bit?” they’d say. We’d all pile back into the station wagon. Driving west from Hancock, New York, we’d cross the Upper Delaware River on steel truss bridges into Pennsylvania. If my mother spotted an interesting wildflower on the side of the road, we’d pull over, and she’d dig it up with the trowel she kept in the back of the car. Did we also stop at a garden nursery on one of those drives and buy a St. Francis statue? I don’t remember.
The brother I knew, the one who pretended to be Bigfoot chasing us around the backyard, vanished when he first left home, never to return. At the boarding school, he played lacrosse and wore pink Polos with the collars turned up. At the rehab, he complained about our childhood, something about our father never taking him camping. At the Family Foundation, he seemed happy but strange in a way I couldn’t put my finger on. I was unsure how to approach this enthusiastic, newly compliant person.
My mother collected the statue pieces off the ground. She wobbled a little as she stood up, and I reached out my arms to help steady her, but she had already walked past me. I opened my mouth to ask: Why are you so upset? When did you get the statue? Did William give it to you? But I paused a moment too long, and the opportunity to ask questions passed as she walked up the hill to the house, cradling the broken pieces of St. Francis.
My parents bought the Farm when I graduated college, five years after William’s death. The first time I visited, I drove by myself, excited to see the place my mother had described.
“There’s an old dairy barn, a stone wall, and bear caves,” she said. As I exited the New York Thruway and drove west on the windy, hilly roads of New York’s backcountry, the scenery started to affect me. Having lived in Vermont for four years, bucolic scenery was nothing new. It wasn’t the beauty of the landscape making my chest tighten, and my hands sweat on the steering wheel. It was its familiarity. The muted colors of the beige hay fields and the brown barns. The rolling sensation of driving up and down steep hills. The delight in seeing century-old farmhouses, followed by dismay at their sagging porches and peeling paint.
I had known on the map where my parents’ vacation home was, but it wasn’t until that solo drive that I realized how close it was to where William had spent three years with a manufactured family, away from his real family. My brother’s ghost lived somewhere in these hilly woods; I was sure of it. I kept thinking maybe I’d find him over the next crest. But I crossed over the Delaware, passing pastures of cows and orchards of crooked apple trees, and found nothing. I arrived at the Farm with a feeling of emptiness I longed to fill. You’d think I would have said to my mom, “I didn’t realize the Farm was so close to The Family.” But I said nothing then and haven’t once mentioned it in the twenty-three years my parents have owned the Farm.
My mom was more at home at this farmhouse on a dirt road than in her colonial home in the suburbs of New Jersey. She loved to sit with her coffee first thing in the mornings and gaze out the bay window into the dewy field in hopes of spotting wildlife. Deer are common, and twice, she spotted a mother bear and a cub. In the afternoons, she’d meander through the fields, identifying wildflowers with ridiculous names like Dutchman’s Britches and Jack in the Pulpit. And right before dinner, she’d suggest we’d take a “cocktail drive,” a slow car ride at dusk, cruising dirt roads to look for wildlife. Passengers were encouraged to bring their drinks. I once saw a coyote.
When my mom walked into the house with the broken St. Francis, I did not follow her. Instead, I checked on my children, who had abandoned archery and were now circling the pond, heads bent, nets in hand, searching through the reeds for frogs.
“You know who is a good frog catcher?” I said to the kids.
“Aunt Roseann,” Michael said. He’s heard my stories before and remembers everything. There are things I wish he’d forget. Like the time he accidentally drank my vodka-cranberry, thinking it was juice. I spotted a bullfrog’s green head peeking out of the floating leaves and gestured to my three-year-old daughter, Julia, to give me the net. I plopped the net over his head and scooped up the frog. Grasping the net so he couldn’t jump out, we marched him over to the big white bucket and dropped him into the muddy water. My middle son, five-year-old Raymond, plucked some grass and threw it in. There was a thump on the plastic every time a frog tried to jump to freedom but failed.
While the kids leaned over the bucket, admiring their catches, I sat down on the grass, enjoying the warmth of Indian summer. I thought again of the broken St. Francis statue. When I first got sober nine months ago, my sponsor directed me to pray every morning. The St. Francis prayer is the only one sanctioned by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) that I feel comfortable saying. Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, To be understood as to understand, To be loved as to love. The other AA prayers make me cringe—too earnest, too God-focused, too many “Thy will”s. Perhaps I like the St. Francis prayer because it’s familiar. Raised Catholic, the hymn version of the prayer “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace” always emotionally grips me as only music can. William was musical. He played guitar and sang. Although when he went to The Family, he distanced himself from the rock n roll he once loved, like Led Zeppelin and the Who. Instead, he moved toward artists who mentioned God, like Cat Stevens and Bob Marley.
“Make Me A Channel of Your Peace” wasn’t played at William’s funeral mass. Instead, the hymn chosen was “On Eagle’s Wings,” and a friend of William’s performed “Fire and Rain” by James Taylor. Typically, the Catholic Church doesn’t allow contemporary music during mass, but I suppose the priest made an exception for my brother because he was young and his death was tragic.
Getting bored staring at the frogs, the kids wandered inside, and I followed. They grabbed their iPods and walked past my father, who had been reading in an armchair in the living room for hours. I headed to the kitchen, where my mom was ripping lettuce leaves for a salad and enjoying a small glass of Dewar’s Scotch on the rocks. If she was still upset about the broken St. Francis statue, she didn’t show it.
I offered to help with dinner, but my mom waved me away. I was feeling jittery. Cravings for alcohol still plagued me, especially at cocktail hour. The people in the rooms of AA kept promising me that soon my cravings would disappear. But even with nine months of recovery, I still longed for alcohol’s soothing effects. I knew that if I joined my mother and sipped a Scotch, the tightly wound spring in my gut would release. I’d unclench my hands, and my shoulders would drop.
I should call my sponsor, I thought, but instead, I walked over to a wall of dusty white shelves in the library. Shoved haphazardly between stacks of books are random photos and mementos from my childhood: I found an image of my brother, William, and my mom at a pond at The Family Foundation. William is holding up a huge bullfrog, so big it looks fake. In another, he is in hiking clothes with a backpack on top of a mountain. These are photo refugees, photos that are too painful to be looked at regularly, so they’ve been relocated to this vacation house. Displayed at my parents’ main home are photos of weddings and grandchildren.
I heard the freezer door open and the clinking of ice cubes hitting glass. Intimate with this sequence of sounds, I knew next would be a scraping noise as the handle of Scotch gets pulled out of the cupboard. For some reason, I was reminded of a recurring dream I had in the weeks that followed my brother’s death. In the dream, my mother is in the kitchen, stirring something on the stove, her back to the backdoor when William walks in. Just barges into the kitchen with a mischievous bravado as if nothing happened. As if he wasn’t dead. I run over to my mother and shield her with my body, blocking her view of William. Furious, I scream at him, “What are you doing? You’re hurting her!”
Still staring at the shelves, I stepped closer and tilted my head to read the spines of the books. I reached for one of our favorites, How to Track Animals, when another book caught my eye, a dark gray jacketless hardcover. On the narrow spine, in small, faded gold letters, was the book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. I pulled it off the shelf. In AA, there are two books considered required reading. One, titled Alcoholics Anonymous, is known as “the Big Book.” And this one, we AAers call “the Twelve and Twelve.” Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions was written in 1953 by AA’s founder, Bill W. It explains the basic principles of AA’s recovery plan.
On the cover of the jacketless book I held in my hand, someone had drawn a triangle within a circle in pencil, the AA symbol. I opened the front cover to find my brother’s name written in orange marker on the backside. This Twelve and Twelve belonged to my brother. I flipped through the book and landed on a page with a phrase highlighted in orange: “. . . our drinking even then was no mere habit . . . it was indeed the beginning of a fatal progression.”
After three sober years, William left The Family to attend Rutgers University and then was kicked out of the sober dorm for drinking. I was a high school senior when William moved back home and too deep into my partying scene to care much about him. Stay out of my way was my general vibe. William pointed out my drinking to my parents, who assumed he was only trying to divert their attention from his drinking. Shortly after, he died in a car crash while driving drunk.
A friend of mine showed up at the funeral repast with a case of Coors Light, and after downing two, I felt like I could breathe again. If William’s drinking buddies were there, they didn’t identify themselves. The friends who did show up were his recovery friends. When the beer started doing its job, making me comfortable, I approached them. They were friendly and had nice things to say about William. Before they left, they found a pen and a piece of paper and wrote down their numbers.
“Call us,” they said, pressing the paper into my free hand, the one not holding a beer can. I never called. Recently, I found this paper of phone numbers in my box of childhood mementos. It occurred to me they were doing what twelve-steppers are told to do, what the women did for me when I first came into AA. Those sober friends of my brother William were offering the hand of AA to me. I wasn’t ready to accept their help then and wouldn’t be for another twenty years.
In the library at the Farm, I wondered how William’s Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions ended up at a vacation house purchased five years after his death. And how come I never noticed this book on the shelf all the years I’ve been coming to the Farm? Time slowed, and the air in the room pulsed. I felt William’s presence, his confident swagger and boyish charm, with me in the library. I was holding the book he held in his hand when he talked to his sponsor.
At my brother’s wake, a woman told my father she always enjoyed what William shared in AA meetings. I pressed his Twelve and Twelveup against my face and imagined attending a meeting with him. Sitting side by side on folding chairs, we’d sip coffee from Styrofoam cups. He’d smell of cigarette smoke and the outdoors. He’d borrow a dollar from me for the basket. He’d lean forward, resting his elbows on his ripped jeans, intently listening to someone’s share. He’d nod, agreeing, and then raise his hand.
“Hi. I’m William. I’m an alcoholic,” he’d begin. He’d surely say something poignant and maybe funny. The room would titter with approval. At the end of the hour, we’d stand, hold hands, and say the Our Father prayer, relishing in the almost magical connectedness of the room. I lower the book and open it up again. I’d never know what it’d be like to be in a meeting with him. But I did have his Twelve and Twelve. He spoke to me through highlighted words. “Fatal progression,” he reminded me.
I longed to share this moment with someone. I turned towards the kitchen, toward my mom, but stopped. What would I say? That I found William’s Step book and felt his presence, love, and encouragement through it? In the twenty years since his death, my mother never talked about William, not about his death and not about his life. I put the book back on the shelf where I found it but stopped again. Changing my mind, I carried the book upstairs and put it in my overnight bag, shoving it underneath my clothes.
Back in the living room, I told the kids it was time to free the frogs. They put down their devices and dragged themselves off the couch, filing past my dad again, who didn’t look up from his book.
“Check out this picture of my brother William,” I said as we walked through the library to the back door. “Look at the huge frog he is holding!”
“MeMa,” my son Michael called to my mom. “Was this picture taken here at our pond?”
She came out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on a dish towel.
“No,” she said, looking at the photo. “It was taken at a pond not too far from here.” Her voice trailed off and she returned to the kitchen, staggering a bit. Her Scotch had kicked in.
The kids and I walked out the back door into the hazy evening light. Swarms of gnats hovered over the pond. The crickets chirped their end-of-summer song. My oldest son, Michael, walked ahead. Julia, Ray, and I carried the bucket to the pond’s edge. My mother stepped onto the back deck with her Scotch in hand to see what we were doing. With a collective push, we tipped the bucket and freed the frogs. As the kids went searching to see where the frogs went, I looked back at my mom and saw her smiling.
Several months later, on another weekend away at the Farm, now one year sober, I looked out the kitchen window and noticed a new St. Francis statue on top of the spring cellar that had arrived without announcement or ceremony. Different from the one that broke, this monk is white and slender and somehow less somber and more kind. He stood in the snow, the red barn his backdrop, watching over the frozen pond, waiting for the spring peepers to arrive.
Every so often in my third year of sobriety, I would think This is the year William relapsed. I’d show up to meetings with “fatal progression” echoing in my head. At the podium at my four-year celebration, I rubbed my coin and thought of William. I still have his Twelve and Twelve, although I don’t open it up as much as I used to.
When my mother died at age seventy-eight, one month after my six-year sober anniversary, we chose the St. Francis prayer from the binder of prayer cards at the funeral home, personalizing the card with a photo of St. Francis at the Farm. Then my sister bought me my own St. Francis statue, which I placed in my flower garden, where I can see him from the kitchen sink at my New Jersey home. With my mother gone, I will never know if there was any connection between my brother William and that original St. Francis statue. Now, when I gaze out the kitchen window at St. Francis, either at my home or the Farm, I think of my mother. I think of her walking up the hill of beechwoods to the bear caves. I think of her with a flower stalk in one hand and the Field Guide to Wildflowers in the other. I think of her driving down a dirt road and pointing to a pheasant in the field. St. Francis now belongs to my mother. Maybe he always did.
Rumpus original art by Ian MacAllen
Voices on Addiction is a column devoted to true personal narratives of addiction, curated by Kelly Thompson, and authored by the spectrum of individuals affected by this illness. Through these essays, interviews, and book reviews we hope—in the words of Rebecca Solnit—to break the story by breaking the status quo of addiction: the shame, stigma, and hopelessness, and the lies and myths that surround it. Sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, adult children, extended family members, spouses, friends, employers or employees, boyfriends, girlfriends, neighbors, victims of crimes, and those who’ve committed crimes as addicts, and the personnel who often serve them, nurses, doctors, social workers, therapists, prison guards, police officers, policy makers and, of course, addicts themselves: Voices on Addiction will feature your stories. Because the story of addiction impacts us all. It’s time we break it. Submit here.